September 9, 2010

From Gerald R. Lucas

Beaten Down

I guess I should face it: I’m a dick. I’m a jerk. I have opinions. I can be overbearing—intimidating, even. I’m not warm-and-fuzzy, but cold-and-coarse. I love a good debate, but I don’t think many of us can detach personal feelings from intellectual exercise anymore. When I think I’m being critical and challenging, I’m really being an overbearing, insensitive, disrespectful bully. When I think that I listen to others’ positions and ask questions, I’m really just standing on my soapbox and being, well, a dick. I am arrogant and liberal—who wouldn’t be with a Ph.D. after his name? I can be read like a book: I’m out to corrupt America’s youth, and I must be stopped.

Maybe all that’s true? Why am I any more qualified to have opinions than any other citizen of Central Georgia? What makes me so special? Nothing. Maybe in a room full of Ph.D.s, I do have some respect and empathy, but should I expect the same in a classroom? On a street corner? Shouldn’t I pay as close attention to what the students think? After all, isn’t it really about them? They are the customers. They have paid to be in the class. Why should they have to listen to anything that they disagree with? What gives me the right to try to make them? I’m such a jerk.

It’s true, and it’s time that I admit it to myself and do something about it. It’s a big, stinky piece of humble pie that I finally have to choke down. Offense used to be, to me, a learning opportunity—something to really make me examine my attitudes and convictions. It’s the most difficult thing about education: that existential moment of understanding that comes from an idea that shakes you to the core. Frightening as hell. Now offense often seems to be grounds for complaint to the authorities, not for introspection.

Aren’t I just a functionary? I have facts to impart to the students, and isn’t that what knowledge is about? Facts don’t offend; they’re impartial, beyond contention. If people wanted opinions, they could turn on their favorite "news" channel or go to church. Is it the fact of my jerkiness that you hate? Or is it that my opinions don’t match your own?

In this current political climate, perhaps the best course of action is to remain silent or risk a fatwa, a witch hunt, a crusade, or a book burning. Yes, I have a right to say what I want—and I even have the qualifications. However, maybe right now and right here the prudent thing would be to keep my jerky mouth shut?

What would my classroom be like if I just stuck to the facts, Jack? Seriously. What are the facts in the study of literature? Context for sure. Plot. Oh, yes. I could point to all the zeugmas, synecdoches, and caesuras in a Neoclassical poem—all facts. What about textual interpretation? Ah, that’s tricky. Isn’t "interpretation" just another word for "opinion"? Better check those at the door. So literature turns into a quantifiable exercise of plot, context, and device?

What piece of literature does not in some way challenge conventional attitudes and beliefs? This is why I love what I do: it deals with all that human stuff that makes us who we are, for better or worse. It’s a mirror that shows all of our beauty and scars—us at our best and our worst. It challenges—kicks us in the throat and teases us with subtlety. It’s not the fact of plot, but the significance of it. Literature is the labyrinth, the puzzle of humanity. No other human endeavor is as important. (Shit, did I just write my opinion?)

I get so passionate in the classroom because I love what I do. I love what I read, and I want to hear what others think about it, too. Yet, my zeal is often mistaken for overbearing intimidation. My execrable opinion. Not for everyone, but a vocal few. I do care about you. I do.

And this is what makes me sad. I don’t know how to change. The only way I can be sure not to offend is to remain silent. Is that what this is about? Is that the prudent course? I do need to think about my job security, no? No employer wants to employ a jerk.

How do I challenge without offending? Is this even possible? For a better educator than myself, perhaps.

I don’t know how to temper the sharp edge of my personality other than to remain silent and smile. Who could object to that? How do I foster a classroom where people can disagree without becoming offended and turning off or going on the attack? Is that even possible these days? The classroom is where we should engage these ideas, not in an administrator’s office.

I’ll probably remain a jerk, but I just need to be a quieter one if I am to remain an educator. I guess that means this is my last blog entry, too.

I’m beaten down.